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Saturday, January 18, 2014

Dust by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor

Dust by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor takes you on an elegiac journey, introducing you to complex personal histories and tragedies. Set in northern Kenyan's dust, darkness and daylight, this novel is a memoir of lives transformed by tribal and political conflicts and colonial processes and imperialistic excesses. The novel presents a tour de force narrative about lost fathers, brothers, sons and women and descends into the labyrinth-like individual stories to present a tale of a family, country, humanity.

A sister Ajany returns to Kenya to find her brother Odidi. She has seen his corpse, but she seeks a closure, an understanding of Odidi's life before his tragic end. The siblings grew up in a dusty Kenyan countryside, in a massive house, where all the books are inscribed with a name of a foreigner or a stranger, Hugo Bolton. Their mother Akai is a mysterious women, who has her own complex narrative of love lost and found, that emerges in bits and parts as we read the novel. Their father Nyipir is a person who in one life acquires many  incarnations, some as he is forced by his own needs, greed and wants, and many to just survive Kenya's turbulent times. Servant of a white man, gravedigger, sepoy, cattle thief, husband, father, a friend to many smugglers and wanderers, a young man who wanted to travel to Burma to retrieve his father and brother's bodies to bury them in their own country. There is a fascinating singer of water songs, Ali Hida Dada, a policemen whose own complex life journey crisscrosses through the personal histories of Nyipir, Akai, Ajany, Odidi and a fifth person, Galgalu who is attached to the Nyipir-Akai household, like a foster son. Isiah Bolton, a son in search of a father who disappeared in Kenya. There are a handful of other characters that complete the list: Justina (Odidi's lady love), Selena (Isiah's mom), a trader (a keeper of secrets) and Chaudhary (a sly shopkeeper). Each character is developed with acute sensibility and sympathy, allowing us to see nuances in their personalities, deceits and shadows, exposing both bitter and sweet versions of their projected and veiled selves.
Dust is beautifully written book. As the narrative advances through present or past, Owour delivers many remarkable, poetic short sentences. Short sentences and paragraphs that puncture your thoughts. You gasp before you carry on reading. You gasp first at the beauty of the wordplay, then you grasp the insight or ache that each needle-shot sentence releases. The novel emerges in all its intricate and articulate richness through lives transformed by a recent colonial experience as well as political upheavals and corruption in an emergent nation. Perhaps you can appreciate this novel more if you have a native sympathy with the fate of people scarred by colonial pasts and a present corrupted, manipulated by economic interests of multinational companies & their local, vocal, powerful, corrupt collaborators. Some very heartbreaking episodes fill this novel, some heartrending scenes, some events that fill you with disgust and disenchantment, and as a counterpoint, there a few passages that bring peace, understanding, pleasure, closure.

Growing up in India I always knew this dust that consumed and subsumed everything, a dust full of broken promises as well as crushed dreams and desires, a dust laced with blood and sweat of the tormented and the tormentors, a dust we miss when we are away from the nation, a dust that masks and hides hurt, longing, feeling and thoughts. As a writer, I struggle to show this dust, capture its prevalence and importance. As a reader, I seek writing that recognizes it, and removes its veil to reveal narratives that remain concealed in our plain sight. Owuor excels as she accomplishes this. In Dust, Owuor delivers a phenomenal saga that touches upon the human condition, deeply appreciative of sibling and parental affection, deeply conscious of tacit and long-lasting friendships, keenly aware of events that shape human destiny. The opening chapter where Odidi runs and runs, the landscapes through which various protagonists walk or night sounds they hear, Ajany's search for her brother's past and especially the scene where she finds the spot on tarmac still covered with his dried blood...  are all crafted with the skill of a seasoned writer.

The overall story, and the novel's many exceptional passages, are so beautifully crafted and delivered that I am convinced that the novel is destined for a long haul, to be read as a classic by our future generations. After the death of Chinua Achebe, I ached to find some other voice in the world literature who could write with his clarity and sympathy about the non-Western world. I always wondered if  Toni Morrison's raw and lucid style can be emulated in fiction written about men and women who live in erstwhile colonized countries. To place Owuor's book on a similar pedestal is perhaps the highest praise I can offer for this work.

Undoubtedly Owuor has delivered a masterpiece, a work of art that inspires and awes you for it touches many a raw nerve, and brings to light events, ideas, thoughts that are too murky to be appreciated otherwise. Though the narrative unfolds in realms and through descriptions unfamiliar to the imaginative and everyday life of many readers (my explanation for harsher reviews), I think Owuor's sparkling writing is capable of awakening many eyes, hearts and minds to such life-stories. Appreciating the novel Dust does require examination of our own biases, created by our readings and upbringings. Perhaps we need more novels like Dust if we really wish to comprehend the cultural and societal changes taking place in many non-Western nations. Even if the novel treads through threads far from your experience and comfort zone, read it for its music, descriptions and haunting prose and marvel at the author for unraveling secrets of human condition, secrets only a writer from a distant, dusty nation knows. 
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